When Dan Rawls speaks, we should listen. His words — delivered in a cool, calm and collected drawl — are carefully chosen and show that he has done his homework. If school is in session when he’s building your engine, you’re in luck, but if school is in session when you’re lining up next to him, you might find yourself wishing you had a pass to get out of class. Rawls builds engines for many accomplished racers, including three-time NMRA EFI Renegade champion Brian Mitchell, but after building an engine for himself and putting it in the ’90 Mustang on loan from Mitchell, he has proven that he is just as skilled in the cockpit as he is under the hood.

By: Mary Lendzion
Courtesy of ProMedia Publishing

At the time of this interview, Rawls, who lives in Cleveland, Tennessee, and is engaged to Roni Osterman, had found himself in the number one qualifier spot four races in a row, including the season opener at Bradenton, where he ran 8.405 at 163.22 miles per hour. “Dan is very confident in his own abilities,” said Brian Mitchell. “No matter what he does, he expects to succeed. As far as racing goes, he’s very good, and as far as engine-building goes, well, I drive ten hours each way, from Delaware to Tennessee, to have my engine done by him, so that says a lot about his knowledge and talent.”

PowerTV: It’s good to see that Brian Mitchell’s old car found a new driver rather than a spot in a garage after he got his new car.

Dan Rawls: Yes, we picked it up at the end of 2007 and we ran five races last year. Part of it is so it can be a test bed so we can gather some information. We test a lot. We try a lot of different stuff, like different fuels and torque converters, and since we do engines for four or five Renegade cars, we take that information and incorporate it into their combinations.

PowerTV: What will you tell us about the car’s current specs?

Dan Rawls: We went through everything and redid a lot of stuff. There were a lot of things that needed maintenance and our combination uses a completely different setup than what Brian was using. It’s a nitrous combination. It has 360 cubic inches and we use an 8.7 block instead of an 8.2 block. It gives you a better piston configuration. It has Brodix heads and an Edelbrock 8.7 Super Victor intake.

The transmission comes from Dynamic Converters/Pro-Formance Transmissions and Sean Wiley and Frank Lupo from there do the torque converter. Their stuff has been really reliable for us and we’ve had zero issues with it. It’s one less thing to worry about.

We use UPR suspension stuff and K-member and Dave Zimmerman from Team Z Motorsports has been a big help to us, too. We’re putting one of Team Z’s wings on and some of Team Z’s travel limiter stuff. Dave’s probably the premier stock suspension guy in the country. You can bounce ideas off of him. He’s like us as far as we don’t think there are any secrets to anything; just a lot of work.

PowerTV: What did Steve Johnson of Induction Solutions do for you?

Dan Rawls: He did the installation of the manifold. He installed the fogger system and he flows the system and gets you a starting point. I’ve known him for 15 years and we consider him to be the top nitrous guy in the country. He’s been a big help to us. He’s based in Florida now. He doesn’t try to talk over your head and get into unnecessary technicality.

PowerTV: What draws you to DiabloSport EFI Renegade?

Dan Rawls: It’s a class that has a lot of rules and it’s extremely competitive. I’ve been in situations where we were the number one qualifier and the next three guys were all within three or four hundredths. Some of the other classes, when you start talking about how you have fifteen hundredths or three tenths difference, you don’t see that in this class. The competition is so close and the class is so constrained by the rules that it seems like the top ten guys have the opportunity to win a race.

In this class, you’re not going to see anyone come out and win five or six races a year because of the level of competition. Camshaft lift is restricted to 550 and we have to run the stock hydraulic lifters in the motor and there are set cylinder head rules where you can only run certain castings. There’s an approved list of superchargers you can run and there are intake manifolds you can run and it’s an automatic trans class and I think in the long run, even though the rules seem restrictive, they keep the racing to a reasonable level.

It’s not inexpensive by any stretch of the imagination, but I think NMRA does a pretty good job with the rules and trying to keep the level of competition fair and you’re not so ruled to death that you’re stifled. You’re given room to think outside of the box a little.

PowerTV: To what do you attribute your success as an engine builder and racer?

Dan Rawls: I’ve always been the type of person who, if I don’t know how to do something, I seek out the people who are successful and look at how they did it and apply that to me. Whether it was reading about it, watching a video about it, or whatever it took. If I wanted to be successful, I’d figure that people who were previously successful knew something, and I’ve found that to be a pretty good way to do it.

It takes patience and perseverance. You can’t go into it with a lackadaisical mindset. It takes concentration and focus. You have to be able to eliminate things in your environment that aren’t important to what you’re doing. When you’re at bat and you’re looking for a particular thing and you don’t think of what you don’t want to happen, you always focus on what you want to happen. If you have any focus on what could go wrong, it’s likely that it will, whereas if you focus on the positive, like, you want to hit that ball in that area, that’s what happens.

PowerTV: How has your season gone so far?

Dan Rawls: At Bradenton, we set the Renegade record and we were number one qualifier. That’s the fourth race in a row we’ve been number one qualifier. We set the record at an 8.49 but we had an 8.40 but the 8.49 wouldn’t back up the 8.40 but the 8.40 would back up the 8.49, but we ran the two fastest passes ever.

The next closest guy to us was Brian Mitchell. He qualified with an 8.50. We had that covered pretty good. We had an issue where we had hurt a head gasket. We didn’t notice until Saturday night and we pulled it off and couldn’t find anyone to surface the head, so we couldn’t run the race. It was a little frustrating.

PowerTV: The hurt head gasket aside, the car laying down those numbers was an impressive start to the season. How do you like your chances for the season?

Dan Rawls: We ended up eighth in points last season, even though we missed two races. I think we’ll be extremely competitive this season.

PowerTV: Is there anything you would change about the current DiabloSport EFI Renegade rules?

Dan Rawls: I don’t know that there’s anything I would change. I understand there are several reasons they have the rules they have. They’re trying to not let the class get faster. I think the fact that the rules haven’t changed much is one of the reasons they’ve had success. There have just been small changes, and that allows the guy who built a car two years ago to still have a competitive combination, though the cars, as you would expect, become a little faster every year. There’s a lot of parity in the class.

PowerTV: Who’s got the car to beat this season?

Dan Rawls: Well, besides me, I would say probably the guy who will also be the most competitive would be Brian Mitchell. He pits with us and has access to my information and while his car is set up a little differently, it’s still applicable. John Keller will have access to the same information and so will Chris Beary. That’s part of what they get from getting their engines from us. It’s like a team effort. That was our agreement with them. Anything we know, you’ll know.

PowerTV: How did you get into cars?

Dan Rawls: I always went to the drag strip with my dad when I was a kid. He raced cars, motorcycles and boats, and I started racing when I was 16, when I got my first car. It was a 1967 Fairlane with 390 cubic inches and a four-speed. I street-raced it and took it to the track.

I progressed from there and I started messing around with engines and stuff and went to school and played ball, but always raced cars and worked on racecars and all that stuff. I also had a 1969 Mustang with a 351 Cleveland in it and it ran 10.60. We had some street race stuff and I had a single turbo street car that was a1988 Mustang coupe and it went 5.50s in the 130s in the eighth-mile. It was actually a blow-through turbo with a carburetor on it.

PowerTV: Tell us about PT Race Engines and Cleveland Performance Center in Cleveland, Tennessee, which you own.

Dan Rawls: They’re one and the same. One is our corporate name and the other is what we use locally, but we’re changing that around a little bit and it’s going to be Cleveland Performance. When people would call directory assistance, the operator could never figure out what it was.

PowerTV: Do many people think it’s in Cleveland, Ohio instead of Cleveland, Tennessee?

Dan Rawls: Some people do, but I think a lot of the NMRA people know us and know where we are. I guess it’s also going to be people’s first assumption, but once they talk to me, they know that I don’t sound like I’m from Ohio.

PowerTV: How long have you been building engines?

Dan Rawls: Well, as a business, I started this in 1991, I believe. I’ve always liked working for myself and this was something that I’ve always been interested in and I have a little bit of a knack for it. I worked in a speed shop and in a performance shop that sold circle track stuff, and I managed a couple bars and clubs in Florida, which is where I’m originally from, but I decided that wasn’t my niche.

I like the process of taking something and trying to make it a little better and seeing the end result and trying to find a way to make it better each time so you’re always in a progressive state. We’ll do things to our own stuff that we won’t do to our customers’ stuff. We can take it apart, look at it, and think we don’t want to do that or that seems to be working. We keep a lot of records and we have a maintenance schedule. Our customers reap the benefits of that and that’s part of what they get for being one of our customers.

We don’t have a real big shop. I’ve got one full-time guy, David Powell, and one part-time guy, Mike Wagner, who’s got a 900-horsepower street car himself. It’s a really nice Shelby clone, a 1966 with add-on air, a 351 Windsor with TFS High Ports and a carbureted turbo. He’s going to run some of the True Street races.

Anyway, as an engine builder, when your cars are doing well, you get satisfaction from knowing you’ve given somebody something to work with as far as a capacity to win, but without their hard work, that would never be achieved. It takes work on both sides.

PowerTV: Who else besides Brian Mitchell, John Keller and Chris Beary have you built engines for?

Dan Rawls: We did engines for Jason Geroulo last year, and back in the mid to late 1990s, we did engines for Ken Ingram when he ran NMCA and was Limited Street champion. I used to do nitrous engines for Tim Matherly when he had pushrod engines in his car. He runs in (5.0 Mustang and Super Fords Magazine) Real Street.

PowerTV: It’s no secret that you test a lot. Does that give you an edge?

Dan Rawls: My contention is I do more testing with my car than probably any other two guys combined, so the fact is not that my combination is any better, it’s just more tested. We build these other engines so I know what power they make and the potential they have. I think some guys have some issues with reliability, so they don’t think they can test.

We didn’t have any issues until the final race last season and that’s because we leaned on it a little. People see your success but they don’t see what you went through to get there. If you want to be competitive, you have to test. If you’re not going to test, you’re not going to be competitive or you’re going to be hit-and-miss competitive.

When we test, we don’t always go to a good track. We’ll go to a track that is marginal, because if you never go to a marginal track, you have no notes and no idea what your car will do under those conditions. If I can get my car down a marginal track, I can get my car down a good track.

I figure at some point somewhere, I’m going to have notes for any condition and know what to do as far as tire settings, how much travel in the front end or whatever. We have that information to pull from. That can be the difference between winning and losing when things are close.

PowerTV: Who crews for you?

Dan Rawls: David Powell is the crew chief on the car, and Jason (JR) Canfield takes care of the tires and pulls the plugs when we get back from making a pass and stuff like that. I consider myself lucky to have an extremely good crew.

I don’t have to worry about whether someone tightened the lug nuts.

PowerTV: What was your role with World Ford Challenge?

Dan Rawls: I helped them write the rules and did a lot of stuff with that. They contracted me, but their stipulation was that I hired my own crew and paid for everything for my own crew, including their lodging. They wanted to reduce the pay they were giving and I didn’t feel good about cutting my guys’ pay. Lodging didn’t get cheaper and the car count went up.

PowerTV: I’m told you’re politically active on a local level.

Dan Rawls: I’m the county coordinator for the Campaign for Liberty, which came out of the Ron Paul for President campaign. I’m extremely active in all of that and at the next race, it will be on my car and trailer. I’ve always been politically active, but it’s extremely important that people get involved in what’s going on in their government and that they have an active role in what’s going on around them.

We do a lot of local campaigning and during elections, we do a lot of canvassing. I try to get people involved in different types of activities. At the local university here, we’re trying to get a liberty forum to get people to express their ideas and where they think things are heading in our country. I’ve decided I need to spend some time giving back. I’m a pretty lucky and pretty blessed guy and I try to at least give people a forum in which they can express their views and ideas. Get active. Come to a meeting and we’ll give you something to do. We stay in touch with our state representatives and local representatives, and we go to city council meetings. You have to be fundamentally sound in your own town before you go outside of that.

PowerTV:What are your goals for this season?

Dan Rawls: We are going to try to win three races and make a run for the EFI Renegade championship. We ended up in eighth place last season and we had missed the first two races, but we are going to try to make all of the races this season.